2016 Kia Optima First Drive Review

By Damion Smy, 03 Feb 2016 Car Reviews

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2016 Kia Optima First Drive Review

All-new mid-sizer ramps up performance and polish, for a price.

The Kia Optima set the design trend for the car maker, which spruiks ‘The Power to Surprise’ as its slogan. Yet for a car that set the look and characterised the confidence, verve and difference of the Korean brand, the second-gen Optima plays an awfully straight bat in terms of its looks. There’s hardly any resemblance to the stunning ‘Sportspace’ concept shown at Geneva 2015. It’s a good thing, then, that it sits on a new platform, offers more space and is a far more honed execution than its predecessor.

There are just two trim levels. The $33,490 Optima Si is the price leader, aimed primarily at fleets and pragmatists. The step up to the Optima GT we’re driving here is an eyebrow-raising $10K. At $43,990, it’s the most expensive Optima ever offered.

The GT not only gets unique bumpers, as well as a rear diffuser, 18-inch alloys and bi-xenon headlamps, it also gets the 2.0-litre turbocharged four from the Hyundai Sonata, with which this car shares its underpinnings. It features the same 180kW/350Nm outputs and six-speed automatic as the Sonata, but uses less fuel (8.5L/100km) and is loaded with far more equipment.

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It ought to be, as the 2.0T-GDI engine is available in Sonata Elite for $36,990 with the same packaging and roominess. New Optima’s 2805mm wheelbase is 10mm longer than before, resulting in masses of rear-seat space for easy six-foot passenger comfort, and a 510-litre boot hiding a full-size alloy spare.

The cabin is a significant step up from the plastic-laden, cheap and nasty cockpit of its predecessor. The overall layout is simple, neat and effective, with aluminium (not coated plastic) inlays, a crisp 8.0-inch centre screen for the standard sat-nav and a reverse camera. There are also heated/ventilated leather seats, a good driving position with ample adjustment of both steering column and seat, and a flat-bottomed steering wheel.

On the road, the Optima GT shows dabs of talent, yet it doesn’t quite pull it all together.

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The 180kW turbo donk is responsive, if a little gruff when pushed, and if you select the ‘Sport’ Drive Mode, the GT’s throttle pedal is far too toey and difficult to modulate. Best leave it in ‘Normal’ mode and enjoy crisper steering too.

The engine is reasonably quiet around town – where the Optima offers good overall refinement – and while the auto is also a little slow at getting it all together, its smoothness is admirable.

At slow speeds, the GT’s ride (on excellent 235/45R18 Michelin Pilot Sport 3 tyres) is too firm, even for a pseudo-sports model. This fidgety ride is transmitted through the chassis and steering wheel, and can become tiresome. There’s also too much road noise. Yet the local input to the Optima’s rear suspension has clearly helped: at speeds above 70km/h, the ride matures into an almost supple, yet still sporting, pliancy on bumpy country roads. The electric steering, too, is a highlight, as it’s reasonably accurate and sharp enough to make a game of a windy road.

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The body control, however, isn’t. That high-speed ride may be a plus, but a larger bump will see the Optima GT feel a bit spongy, and quick changes of direction aren’t its forte.

Does that mean the Optima GT doesn’t make the cut? No. While it lacks the chassis talent and overall polish of VW’s new Passat, the biggest Kia makes huge strides in the areas of perceived quality, safety, and luxury.